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Hawthorne’s Midwest Championship gives players a chance at “One Big Score.”

The end of March is now upon us, and that could mean only one thing for Hawthorne tournament players . . . It’s once again time for Hawthorne’s much awaited, often imitated but never duplicated Midwest Championship handicapping tournament. 

This year’s Midwest Championship will be a two-day event held at Hawthorne over the weekend of March 31-April 1. In addition to offering a possible purse of $50,000, the tournament will also be a qualifying event for next year’s Coast Casinos Horseplayer World Series season-ending championship in Las Vegas. The top five finishers from the Midwest Championship will not only qualify to play in the World Series – they will also win $500 in travel expenses for Las Vegas in addition to their prize money, which should be between $20,000 and $2,500 depending on their placing. 

Hawthorne offers players plenty of opportunities for “a big score” throughout the meet thanks to bets such as the low-takeout Pick 6, the Place Pick 9, and early and late Pick 4 pools featuring carryovers. Nevertheless, without question, the Midwest Championship tournament still provides players their best chance for a prime payday at the spring meet. The contest will fill up with a total of around 250 entries (up to two entries per person), and two of those entrants will take home five-figure paydays – not to mention the trips to Vegas where they can parlay their entry into a top prize of up to $500,000. Overall, I’d say that’s a shot worth taking on March 31-April 1 at Hawthorne. After all, the worst that can happen is that you come out an enjoy a great weekend of racing at Hawthorne’s premier handicapping competition, which also happens to offer a boatload of amenities including free past performances, free lunch buffets, free subscription to Horseplayer Magazine, and other great gifts worth $200.  It is like playing for free.

There are plenty of racetracks and OTB’s out there currently hosting handicapping tournaments, but few are doing a better job of it than Hawthorne. And . . . as the author of the Handicapping Contest Handbook . . . I happen to know something about this particular subject.

 Tournament entrants are always looking for extra value when they choose which contests to play in on the annual schedule, and Hawthorne just so happens to offer one of the most value-packed tournaments in the country. This is because Hawthorne offers nothing less than 100 payback in all of its tournaments, with NO TAKEOUT. All entry fees collected get returned to the top 10 finishers in the form of prize money. As if this weren’t enough, Hawthorne has even added money into the pot for this contest in the past ($7,400 in added money in this tournament last year). That sum is on top of the money that the track already pays into the pot to place its own 25 in-house qualifiers into the contest free of charge. Those 25 players will have earned their berths into the Midwest Championship based on top 5 finishes in the Spring Series Handicapping Tournament preliminaries held at the track between Feb.25 and March 25.

 For the uninitiated, the Midwest Championship tournament format involves mythical win-place-show wagering on a total of 10 pre-selected Hawthorne live races over the course of the two-day weekend (5 races per day). Players will each be given a mythical $1,200 starting stake on each day, which must be bet across the board on select mandatory races from Hawthorne. Across the board bets must be made in equal denominations on a single horse per race, and players must bet at least a minimum of 10 percent of their bankroll, and no more than a maximum of 50 percent of their current bankroll on each contest race. The contest coordinators will release scores between each and every race, and all players’ score updates will include guidelines for each player’s minimum and maximum bets for the next upcoming contest race.

 For example, players start the first tournament race with $1,200, so their first bet must be for at least $120 ($40 WPS), or as much as $600 ($200 WPS).

 After the first day of the contest is official, Hawthorne will carryover everyone’s Day One scores, plus add an additional $1,200 into players’ bankrolls to start the second day of the contest. The players with the highest two-day totals will be the winners.

 So what’s the best way to go about winning this contest? Well, after attending and playing in both the spring and fall versions of this contest last year, a couple of key strategic approaches became evident to me.

 First and foremost, due to the format that allows players to wager up to 50% of their bankroll in each race, this contest has historically been decided by winning wagers during the second half of the action on Day Two, when the leaderboard dramatically turns over and then turns over again in the last two or three races of the tournament. Therefore, unless you have built such a monumental and lengthy lead up until that point in the contest, you will probably need to make one or two huge bets late in the contest – and make sure that they win, or at last pay off a good return to place and show.

 Second, since the main strategic brunt of the action in this contest doesn’t take place until the last couple races on Sunday, contestants are advised to simply try to play slow and steady on Saturday with a mind on simply trying to maintain their starting $1,200 bankrolls, perhaps even ending the day with a small gain. Having played this format twice last year, I witnessed a good percentage of the leaderboard basically tapping out on Day One of the contest. Therefore, simply maintaining your bankroll through Day One will give you a big edge over about half of the field, and should be enough to land you squarely in the top 20 percent in the standings going into the deciding Day Two.

 Many players figure that because they will be getting another $1,200 placed into their bankrolls on Day Two of the tournament anyway, they might as well “go for broke” on Day One.

 Even though the go-for-broke approach will inevitably end up working for some players, it is not the recommended style of play in this event for a couple of reasons. 1) The Day One leaders must bet more per race on Day Two, and therefore are often nowhere to be found on the leaderboard at the conclusion of the contest – no matter how good their scores were at the end of the first day; and 2) Players who go for broke on Day One and lose will be starting Day Two with a bankroll approximately only half as big as the more patient players who were simply able to maintain their Day One bankrolls and carry them over to Day Two, which is essentially the “money day” of the tournament. Players who begin Day Two with bankrolls in the neighborhood of $2,400 will essentially have twice the amount of bullets to fire in the mad dash to the finish in this contest than the go-for-broke players, who will repeatedly find themselves in must-win situations all throughout Sunday’s action in order build up their totals from the low-water mark of just over $1,200.

 In the Hawthorne Midwest Championship, as in all handicapping tournaments, it pays to set a target score for yourself, and then be able to shoot for that target score as you proceed to play the tournament. The winning scores for the past couple Hawthorne tournaments – last spring’s Midwest Championship and last fall’s Heavyweight Championship – were $16,581 and $23,314, respectively. The $23,314 score, which was compiled impressively by contest winner Brian Gross, was largely an aberration because it was nearly $8,500 in front of the contest’s runner-up, Tom Walsh, who tallied $14,899, and more than $6,500 ahead of last spring’s winner Gordon Hoppe, who finished with $16,581.

 This leaves us with a target score to shoot for of something between $15,000 and $16,500 as the money range that will probably be needed in order to win. If your goal is simply to qualify for a trip to Las Vegas for the Horseplayer World Series, then a total above $12,000 should be enough to get you into the top five and do the trick.

 If you hope to turn your starting $2,400 bankroll into a total in excess of $12,000, you’re going to need to win at least two big bets, and do so late in the contest when the leaderboard continually changes dramatically after every race. In your last few contest plays, send in the maximum bet allowed in at least two of those races including the final race, and do so on horses offering as much value as possible, hopefully in the odds range above 5-1. If you happen to like a horse at double digit odds late in the contest, this is also the ideal time to send it in on your longshot of choice and then sit back and hope for the best.

Again, make sure you save your bullets for the end of the contest, when you have a clearer idea of what target number to shoot for, and remember that you’ll need to parlay a couple of wins in a row late in the game if you hope to win.

 You’re going to need to have an exceptional couple days of handicapping in order to win, but if you do, remember that the rewards in terms of both money and bragging rights will be more than enough to make an entry in the Hawthorne Midwest Championship worthwhile. Remember, you’ve gotta be in it to win it. Somebody will be leaving the track up to $20,000 richer on Sunday night, and that somebody might as well be you.

Best of luck.



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